Candor in the court

A model program in Boston's Federal Courthouse engages students' curiosity and judicial talents through a Civil War-era play

"How young did you make your slaves start working in the field?" Danny Silk demands of the defendant.

Captain Jeffrey Rhodes looks around nervously. This kid is not helping his case. The Confederate officer hems and haws, but finally admits, "About five or six, most times. But that was legal then. And we treated them well." Danny does not look convinced.

Neither do his classmates, sixth-graders from James Daley Junior High School in Lowell, Mass., who are participating for the day in Boston's Federal Court Public Education Project. The project, begun in 1998 as part of an effort to make the new courthouse more accessible to the public, challenges students in Grades 5-12 by simulating high-stakes legal decisions.

Maria Karagianis, a former Boston Globe reporter who launched the project, says her interest in the American court system started years ago, when she was in South Africa covering the trial of the people accused of killing anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. She was outraged to see them acquitted.

"I think it was at that moment," she says, "that I really began to realize that our system, however flawed it may be, is still the best system in the world.... We must train our children, we must engage each other in conversations about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. We simply can't take this for granted."

On the line today: the end of the Civil War. Actors from Theatre Espresso, a troupe specializing in interactive drama, portray President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Captain Rhodes, his sister Sue Ellen, and a former slave.

The captain is among a group of Confederate soldiers rounded up and held by Stanton after Lincoln's assassination. Each of the characters presents a different argument: for the captain's release, for his right to a trial, or for continued imprisonment. Then the students, who take on the role of members of Congress, interrogate each character so they can make a judgment.

The questions they fire at the actors turn out to be less about politics and more about life under slavery. "What did it feel like being a slave?" they ask Frederick Douglass. "Was there ever anything good about it?"

"I don't think, if you have no freedom, if your master can whip you for no reason, that there can be anything good about that," he replies.

The play spares no one: not the characters it represents, not the people who committed atrocities (including rape) during slavery, and not the participants. The actors, particularly the one who plays the blustery Stanton, aren't afraid to argue with the students. With each candid reply, more hands shoot up around the room.

After they've questioned all the characters, the children vote by a narrow margin against releasing the Confederates (diverging from the historical decision made by Johnson). They decide the captain should be held in custody, pending a fair trial. "Because everybody deserves that," one of the students insists.

Wendy Lement, the artistic director of Theatre Espresso penned several versions of the interactive play, "Lincoln's Final Hope." "Even now, with the questions the kids ask, it's different every time," she says.

The actors confide as much when they chat with the students about the exercise after the play is over. "Sometimes it's scary, 'cause we have no idea what you guys are going to ask us," Catherine Campbell says.

The actors and students also discuss the decision, which tends to differ according to what's going on in the news. After the Oklahoma City bombing, classes overwhelmingly decided to keep potentially dangerous soldiers locked up without trial. When American soldiers were being held as prisoners of war in Kosovo, students were adamant that the confederate POWs should be set free.

The interaction extends beyond the actors. Once they leave, a robed figure in the audience makes his way to the front of the room. This day, it's Judge Hugh Bownes, of the US District Court of Appeals, who jokes with the students about his long tenure on the court. "I've become a senior judge, so I don't have to work as hard as those younger judges," he laughs.

Federal judges are not typically renowned for their humor, or for their accessibility to the public. Usually they're the ones in control, the ones who ask questions and pass judgement. But not today.

The Lowell students question Judge Bownes about his job. "Your Honor," asks Dannie Tran from the front row, "were you ever troubled by a decision that was made in your courtroom?"

The judge looks her in the eye. "Yes, I am troubled," he says, "And I hope I continue to be troubled. Because once a judge begins to think he knows for sure what's right and wrong, he's not as good a judge as he should be. You ought to have doubts, always.... But it doesn't stop me sleeping at night."

The Boston program has been so well received, other judicial districts are beginning to take notice. The federal courthouse in Worcester, Mass., has adopted it, and courts in Springfield, Mass., and Kansas City, Mo., will soon follow. After a presentation by Ms. Karagianis last year, an American Bar Association committee of federal judges voted to begin similar educational programs in 10 judicial districts.

Judge Bownes, for one, approves. "I think that judges have a duty to try to tell the community - and particularly young students - something about the law," he says. "And I'm always interested in the questions the kids ask, because it gives you some insight into this generation."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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